The results of the 2020 Census are in, and the big takeaway is clear: The multiracial future of America is no longer “the future.” It’s the here and now. Big cities like Boston and New York became more diverse over the last decade, but some of the most profound changes took place in the nation’s suburbs. Suburban towns like Duluth, Georgia, and Sugar Land, Texas, which were once known as bastions of white flight, have now become among the most diverse places in the country. Indeed, half of all people of color in metro areas now reside in suburbs rather than in urban city cores. The politics of suburban America have already started to feel the impact.
But the growing diversity of America has also produced backlash, and a threat to the emerging multiracial America that is clear and present without swift congressional action.
A record number of restrictive voting measures are moving through state legislatures. And in the suburbs, where multiracial coalitions have increasingly started to compete for and win power, partisan map drawers have communities of color squarely in their crosshairs for the redrawing of electoral district boundaries that will take place this year and next for everything from city council to Congress.
For the first time in history, all of the country’s population gains came from people of color, with 70 percent of growth fueled by Latino and Asian communities. The census also showed a record number of Americans now identifying as more than one race, while the number of white Americans fell by just over two and a half percent between 2010 and 2020. It’s the first time in American history that there were fewer white people from one census to the next (though some of this may be due to changes in census methodology).
But as remarkable as the census numbers are at 30,000 feet, they are even more astonishing at the local level. Take Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta. Beginning in the 1970s, the county boomed as white people left Atlanta in droves after the end of segregation. For decades after, Gwinnett County was the political base for former House speaker Newt Gingrich and home to a brand of deeply limited-government, suburban conservativism that eschewed both taxes and mass transit connections to Atlanta. Half way across the country, Tom DeLay built a similar political base in Fort Bend County, Texas, outside of Houston, another white-flight suburban county.
Flash forward to 2021. Gwinnett County, which was nearly 90 percent white in 1990, is now only 35 percent white. Fort Bend County is only 32 percent white. In both counties, no ethnic group is a majority or even a significant plurality.
These demographic changes have already started to translate into shifts in political power. In 2018, Fort Bend County elected an Indian American to be its county executive, the first non-white person to hold the post. And in 2020, Gwinnett County elected a Black sheriff and the first Chinese-American woman to serve in the Georgia state senate. Across the country, from the suburbs of New York City to the suburbs of Dallas, there are similar stories of diverse, multiracial suburban coalitions winning power or coming close to it.
But the redrawing of electoral districts after the 2020 Census will give political operatives a chance to kneecap the new multiracial America just as it is being born. If successful, they will undo many of electoral gains of recent years and make it harder for new opportunities to emerge.
Nowhere is the redistricting threat greater than in the suburbs of the South, where single-party control of the map drawing process will combine with weakened legal protections to set the stage for an unprecedented shellacking of communities of color. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision greenlighting partisan gerrymandering, Republican map-drawers will have free rein to break apart districts where Black, Latino, and Asian voters have enjoyed increasing electoral success, citing naked partisan motives as their excuse.
Changing the trajectory of the coming redistricting train wreck for communities of color will require bold action by Congress. By passing critical reforms like the For the People Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Congress could ban partisan gerrymandering and restore and strengthen key protections for communities of color in redistricting. The result would be transformative. But with census numbers in hand, map drawing is starting. The longer Congress waits, the messier the process of implementing reforms will be and the greater the likelihood that discriminatory maps get left in place for the 2022 midterms.
The census numbers make clear that our country’s future is multiracial and deeply coalitional. Without gerrymandering, political parties would be forced by necessity to figure out ways to build diverse, multiracial coalitions or face being condemned to being regional or sectional curiosities. But gerrymandering gives states a way to kick the can down the road. For the sake of all of us, Congress must take the power to cheat voters off the table.
Michael C. Li is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice where he works on redistricting, voting rights, and elections.